Ken Early: How can anybody think VAR is an improvement?

Belgium win over Portugal will be remembered for violent play and poor refereeing

Kevin De Bruyne is brought down by Palhinha during Belgium’s win over Portugal. Photograph: Lluis Gene/EPA

Kevin De Bruyne is brought down by Palhinha during Belgium’s win over Portugal. Photograph: Lluis Gene/EPA

 

At first sight Thorgan Hazard’s goal seemed like another of those finishes that have become so common since footballers started spending more time playing video game football than the real thing - like Andriy Yarmolenko v Netherlands, or Kasper Dolberg v Wales. Repeat viewings revealed Hazard had hit through the ball with huge power and the ball had swerved the ‘other’ way, deceiving Rui Patricio.

It was the outstanding moment of quality in a match that will be remembered more for violent play and inconsistent refereeing.

It had been a typically cagey knockout match, and the first moment of real excitement was when Romelu Lukaku suddenly broke free and ran into the Portugal half, with Palhinha hanging out the back of him. As the Portuguese defensive midfielder appeared to waterski in the wake of the massive Belgian, the mind went back to some comments Lukaku had made in an interview a couple of days ago, talking about Ronaldo: “I would like to have his dribble and the way he kicks the ball. He would like to have my power!”

Regardless of whether or not Ronaldo was blessed with Lukaku’s power, you feel that at some point he would have gone down and accepted the free-kick Palhinha was trying so desperately to give him. Lukaku instead gamely soldiered on as though he were playing in an Eton v Harrow game in the 1860s. Result: he lost the ball, and the referee gave Belgium nothing. The lesson for Palhinha was: with this ref, crime pays.

A few minutes later the ball broke again down the middle for Belgium, this time Kevin de Bruyne leading the charge with the ball at his feet. Again Palhinha was in pursuit but this time, rather than pull at the attacker’s shirt, he quickly slid in from behind and brought de Bruyne down with a trip.

De Bruyne’s foot caught and twisted in the ground as he fell, the wrenching force amplified by the momentum of his run. The referee played advantage as Eden Hazard pounced on the breaking ball and surged away, but at least this time he remembered to go back and book Palhinha for the tactical foul.

Tactical fouls

What a pity he hadn’t booked him for the first tactical foul, or rather series of attempted tactical fouls, on Lukaku. If the referee had done what he was supposed to do at that point, then Palhinha probably would not have dived in so recklessly to stop de Bruyne.

Instead, for the second time in a month, de Bruyne was forced out of a career-defining game by an opponent’s foul, after Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger broke his eye socket with a cynically planted shoulder in the face in the Champions League final. On both occasions, the offending player would surely consider the yellow card a price worth paying for taking out the opponents’ best player.

In the second half, another Belgium breakaway was halted by Pepe, who stepped across Thorgan Hazard’s run and, just to make sure, stuck his forearm into Hazard’s face. This was an obviously dangerous foul worthy of a red card. We waited for the inevitable intervention from VAR - but if anyone in the video ref’s booth had a problem with what Pepe had done, they were keeping their mouth shut about it.

Matthijs de Light handles the ball under pressure from Patrik Schick. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/EPA
Matthijs de Light handles the ball under pressure from Patrik Schick. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/EPA

VAR’s failure to do anything about Pepe was hard to understand in the context of a major VAR decision earlier in the day, when the Netherlands’ Matthijs de Ligt was sent off for a professional foul against Patrick Schick. This decision was probably correct according to the letter of the law, since de Ligt had committed a deliberate handball and thereby denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity.

However, it was curious that the referee had already accepted de Ligt had committed a foul, which he had initially opted to punish only with a yellow card: why? If it was a foul worthy of a booking, and it denied a goalscoring opportunity, why didn’t the referee show a red? Surely it hadn’t become more of a goalscoring opportunity because de Ligt had used his hand to prevent it.

Red card

The suspicion is that the referee didn’t ‘feel’ the situation really was worthy of a red card - with Schick still outside the corner of the Dutch penalty area and a lot still to do before he scored. However, once the referee had been called to the sideline and confronted with the video evidence of the handball, he felt that the letter of the law gave him no option but to send off de Ligt.

Without the main pillar of their defence, the Netherlands crumbled to a 2-0 defeat. Maybe they could have survived if they hadn’t lost the other pillar, Virgil van Dijk, to a brutal foul that, ironically enough, was completely missed by VAR at the time.

Spain’s Thiago Alcantara complained last week that he didn’t like VAR because it had taken away the element of the ‘picaresque’ - the way fooling the ref and getting away with it was an art in itself. In fact VAR still lets you get away with things, it’s just that your cleverness and skill no longer have anything to do with it. Agency is thus taken away from the players on the field, but they don’t get fairness in return.

The rules are supposed to be there to protect players from injury and to prevent egregious and cynical foul play. VAR has created a culture where micro-events, initially missed by the referee and most of the players, can be gamed into match-deciding penalties and red cards, while at the same time many obviously dangerous fouls continue to go unpunished.

The distinction between what is punished and what isn’t continues to be quite arbitrary, only now referees no longer have their eternal alibi: I did not see the incident. The game is now governed by an infuriating mix of traffic warden pedantry and incomprehensible official blindness.

It is hard to see how any thinking person can consider this an improvement on what went before.

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